Formerly incarcerated people discuss career obstacles during Second Chance Month

Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership wants to help residents find jobs

ByZach Ben-Amots WLS logo
Saturday, April 24, 2021
Formerly incarcerated people discuss career obstacles
April is Second Chance Month, a time to focus on the challenges and opportunities for formerly incarcerated people in the U.S., including the career obstacles after reentry.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- April is Second Chance Month in the U.S., a time to focus on the challenges and opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, including the career obstacles after reentry.

Elesha Nightingale spent time in juvenile detention centers between the ages of 14 and 17, and she had her juvenile criminal record expunged. But she still was denied employment opportunities as an adult.

"People would just say no. Some people still say no. And I'm always really shocked by it," Nightingale said.

Today, Nightingale is preparing to graduate law school and has founded her own organization, The Uplift, dedicated to mentorship from and for formerly incarcerated people.

"The reason that I wanted to get a legal degree is just because of the odds," Nightingale said. "Everybody who's walked in my shoes can look at me and say, 'Hey, this person did this. I can do this and some."

Orlando Mayorga, who works as a reentry policy coordinator in the lieutenant governor's office, was sent to prison at 17 and remained incarcerated for two decades.

"Reentry doesn't happen at the point that you whatever institution you're at," Mayorga said. "Reentry is a process that for me began years before."

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When he was leaving prison, Mayorga thought he would get a job as an HVAC service technician. But he had built up "social capitol" during his imprisonment and ended up getting offered full-time work as an advocate and organizer. Now he works as a policy advisor on a state level.

"It is definitely harder for people who are formerly incarcerated to find employment," said Karin Norington-Reaves, CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership.

According to Norington-Reaves, the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people is around 27% and as high as 50% in the year after being released.

The workforce partnership is an organization dedicated to helping both job-seekers and employers. Earlier this year, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership opened a new building in the South Side neighborhood of Chatham as a community resource for job-seekers.

Although some attitudes are changing in favor of "second chance hiring," Nightingale said that the majority of employers do not honestly consider hiring formerly incarcerated people. She believes that employers should shift toward recognizing the unique skills that those employees could bring.

"For people that have endured incarceration, there's a lot of leadership skills that come with that," Nightingale said.

Norington-Reaves said that second chance hiring is more than just a moral issue. She called it "an economic imperative."

"When you look at the attrition rate in the labor force, when you look at the greying in the labor force, we can't afford to just overlook this population of people," Norington Reaves said. "Our employers cannot afford to throw away talent, that's the bottom line."